15 March, 2023
Efforts to reduce sulfur emissions from ocean-going transport will improve planetary health as well as the health of coastal societies.
A fruitful research consortium that aims to develop cleaner marine fuels was sparked by the need to comply with new regulations for sulfur emissions introduced in 2020 by the International Maritime Organization.
To help meet these new regulations, KAUST is partnering with the Oil Sustainability Program and Saudi Aramco’s base oil company Luberef. Together, they are undertaking the first demonstration step of fuel desulfurization at the refinery scale.
Sulphur dioxide (SOx) is one of the greenhouse gases implicated in climate change. Thus, lowering these emissions to below the regulated 0.50 percent will improve air quality and reduce acidification of coastal waters — a good outcome for coastal communities as well as the planet.
“Options to reduce SOx emissions are currently limited and impractical for an industry like shipping that is a low-margin business,” explains William Roberts, director of the Clean Combustion Research Center at KAUST. For example, retrofitting for a low-emission fuel or installing exhaust cleaning systems would require costly vessel upgrades and take decades.
“The most cost and time effective alternative is to tinker with the heavy fuel to remove the sulfur,” says Roberts. KAUST is researching such an option through the spinout company uODS, led by Roberts, in collaboration with the Oil Sustainability Program and Luberef.
“This is where real impact happens,” suggests Mohammad Al Tayyar, program director of the Oil Sustainability, speaking about the importance of this project to address a global challenge. “We need to scale up technologies from the lab all the way to commercial applications that can be deployed globally.”
“This is connected to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, as we are utilizing hydrocarbons in the most environmentally and economically sustainable manner,” says Al Tayyar.
The collaboration between KAUST and the Oil Sustainability Program began in 2018, following a call by the Ministry of Energy about reducing sulfur content and emissions from the marine transport sector to comply with new international requirements. Roberts says this was a significant challenge: “At that time, this meant reducing fuel sulfur emissions by a factor of seven.”
William Roberts (center) and his lab members working in the Clean Combustion Research Center. ©KAUST 2023
Roberts explains that this phone call sparked a new line of research on fuel desulfurization. This involved a series of scale-up projects until the research team was ready to approach the Oil Sustainability Program and Luberef with their technology at pilot-scale, which required the resources of Luberef’s refinery for scale up and deployment.c
“Our target is to meet the regulations set by the International Maritime Organization, and our driving force is to sustain the marine ecosystem and to be competitive in the world,” says Tayyar. “This project will bring prosperity to the wider transportation industry while also reducing emissions.
Ultimately, having the capacity to supply a low sulfur fuel will deliver significant benefits to the Kingdom. “As the Kingdom develops the ability to convert reasonably low-value heavy fuel oil to higher value desulfurized heavy fuel oil, it can become a leader in supplying fuel to the marine industry,” says Roberts.
The Kingdom is a significant producer of heavy oil used in the shipping industry and also lies along a busy shipping highway. It has a program of developing bunkering facilities along the Saudi coast to fuel the many ships that pass through the Red Sea from China and India to Europe and the Americas.
The marine transportation industry is driving this innovation because their business model is underpinned by access to cheap fuels. However, desulfurization technology will also be transferable to other heavy-fuel-powered industries, such as utilities that use steam boilers, or chemical and cement factories.
“In discussions with our wider industry stakeholders, some also identified concerns with emissions from their plants and from their industries. Thus, the bottom line in this project is that it will not only focus on the maritime industry but will also benefit many other industries,” says Tayyar.
Read more at KAUST Insight.